The Rainbow Cup delved further into the unpredictable last weekend in the third of three interprovincial rounds in a row.
Unpredictable play can come across as exciting, edge of your seat stuff but that hasn't always been the case in the competition so far. It's almost as if the players know it’s experimental. There are uncharacteristic errors littered in the games that wouldn’t have been seen in the Pro14 proper.
Ulster threw away many opportunities in the first half in particular against Leinster. There were mix-ups in two lineouts near the Leinster tryline, which is unforgiveable, especially considering the combinations they had in the lineout. It’s not as if they had an inexperienced hooker or lineout caller in Rob Herring and Iain Henderson.
You won’t go on to beat Leinster with mistakes likes this, even after long periods of dominance. It’s not good enough in the Rainbow Cup and it certainly wouldn’t cut it in a more serious competition.
Add to that, the Eric O’Sullivan knock-on as Ulster battered the Leinster line and the unfortunate reach from Dave Shanahan that ended up just short. Although, I have a major gripe with Cian Healy’s actions in this instance. Not with Healy himself, he did what he needed to do, and what he would get away with in sliding off his feet and grabbing the ball from Shanahan.
It’s the refereeing around the tryline that grinds my gears. Where else on the pitch can Healy slide in on his knees and take the ball from the grasp of the lively scrum-half? Shanahan hadn’t crossed the line so the offside line hasn’t changed. If he did it would have been a try because the ball was in his control on the ground. Fair enough, he had reached out with the ball, but he still had it in his control.
Leinster were surviving for long periods of the first half. Ulster dominated possession but didn’t make it count and Leinster turned over a few balls deep in their half through Caelan Doris and Josh Murphy. These are turnovers that Ulster will need to revisit if they’re going to improve their game going forward.
Other uncharacteristic errors came from both sides. We saw Garry Ringrose with poor pass accuracy and Billy Burns had some pressure on his kicking foot, mainly when Ross Byrne blocked him down to bring Leinster into the game with Healy’s try some phases later. It was an amateur error from Burns. I remember being coached not to kick the ball across my body in the academy, but if you are going to kick like that you need to set yourself up behind the ruck properly.
It seems that there are far more basic errors than before. Even the delivery from the lineout from Ryan Baird to Luke McGrath was poor. These are Irish-capped players that are making basic errors, not errors from academy or second-string players which we would forgive given the competition that is being played. If they were stretching mistakes from less experienced players, it would be completely different, but these are some of our top players in the country.
Ulster didn’t lose the game in the first half but they could have put it out of reach of Leinster with all the opportunities they had. Instead, they allowed Leinster back into the game and should be frustrated at the result.
Likewise, Munster will be massively frustrated after scuppering their chances of a final in the Rainbow Cup. Yes, we’ve been questioning the purpose of the league at this stage, but if you’re going to be in it, you might as well go on and try to win it. Losing at home to Connacht with such a dominant pack is inexcusable from Munster.
In saying that, you can’t take it away from Connacht. They were under immense pressure in the maul and their scrum was on skates in the early stages of the game. Connacht, through Andy Friend, made a brave call to replace their props with seconds left in the first half and it certainly shored up one of their weaknesses in the game.
The weather may have impacted Munster’s ability to come back. Having played into the wind in the first half they would have expected to control proceedings in the second half. However, the rain came in, the wind died down and Connacht became more dogged than ever.
Niall Murray and Cian Prendergast were physically imposing in the second half and Munster came away from Connacht’s half with nothing, time and time again. That’s not what we come to expect from Munster, not in Thomond Park and not with the dominant pack.
Yet again, discipline was an issue. Shane Daly was yellow-carded after a slap-down following some positive Connacht wide play. From there Munster were under pressure and Damian de Allende gave away a penalty in his own 22.
It wasn’t the penalty, it was the nature of it. He came through the ruck and played the nine, but when he didn’t get him properly, he started kicking the ball in the ruck. Both of these are basic penalties that a professional should know not to give away.
For some reason we’re seeing a lot of basic errors and penalties like this in the competition. Do the players care? It looks like they do at times and some of the rugby being played is great to watch. However, the error counts and immaturity in some of the play has to be seen to be believed.
Connacht got the rub of the green with a few scores, but they were crafty in attack at times and really fronted up defensively in the second half. Munster sensed the pressure and compounded penalties and errors as the game went on.
It looked as if they got themselves out of jail with a try finished by Andrew Conway after Peter O’Mahony ran them up the pitch and Joey Carbery’s cross-field kick to Conway, but the eagle eye of TMO Joy Neville spoiled their day.
Munster will have some breakdown work to do this week considering the turnovers that Connacht won in the second half. That, or their interpretation of the refereeing calls will need some work. Either way, there are work-ons for all provinces this week to improve the standard of this league.
The Rainbow Cup is giving us something to watch, and the games are exciting and closely fought for the most part. But the standard hasn’t been the same as the interprovincial games in the Pro14. It has been a long season and with uncertainty around what they’re playing for, it’s becoming evident that the players are finding it difficult.
That was Leinster’s fourth game against Ulster this season and Munster’s third against Connacht. Add in an Irish camp for their top players and there’s a chance it’s all a bit too familiar for them.
It looks as though the players just need the end of the season to come sooner.